Public Service Commission to take up plan to add new fossil fuels to energy mix

ATLANTA – Georgia energy regulators already have approved a request by Georgia Power for a significant increase in electrical generating capacity to meet the needs of a growing state.

But the state Public Service Commission (PSC) still must sign off on a key component of the Atlanta-based utility’s plan: a proposal to build three new “dual-fuel” turbines at Plant Yates near Newnan. The PSC will hold a hearing on the project July 24 and vote on it next month.

In April, commissioners approved Georgia Power’s plan to add 6,600 megawatts of additional generating capacity, a huge jump from the 400 megawatts the company had predicted it would need two years ago. Driving that big increase are the growing demands of large industrial customers, including an influx of power-hungry data centers being built across the state.

Of that 6,600 megawatts, about 1,300 megawatts would come from the new turbines. The capacity of each turbine would be about 441 megawatts when using natural gas and about 351 megawatts when using ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel.

“Georgia is experiencing a historic increase in the state’s energy and capacity needs,” Georgia Power executives wrote in the company’s application for certification of the three proposed turbines. “The development of Plant Yates Units 8-10 is one of several critical steps needed to address the extraordinary near- and long-term energy needs of this state and our customers.

“Collectively, these three units will generate more then 1,300 MW of necessary peaking capacity, with the first unit available to serve customers beginning in the winter of 2026/2027. This peaking capacity resource is paramount to the company’s ability to continue to reliably meet the capacity needs of our customers and our state.”

But environmental and consumer advocacy groups that have filed with the PSC as intervenors in the case argue that building new turbines powered by oil and gas is premature and runs counter to a prevailing trend in the industry and among the public against fossil fuels.

Bryan Jacob, solar program director for the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said utilities should be moving away from fossil fuels as power generating sources rather than committing to new gas projects.

“We’re already over-reliant on gas,” he said. “This is doubling down on a fossil-fuel source we already rely on too much.”

“Georgians want clean energy,” added Bob Sherrier, a staff attorney with the Atlanta-based Southern Environmental Law Center.

Jacob said building the turbines now also would be premature because other options haven’t been fully explored.

“Georgia Power has an all-source procurement request for proposals that’s already out for bid,” he said. “We think the commission should look at those. … If there’s a set of resources that will meet the need at a lower cost, they’re obligated to consider it.”

But both Georgia Power executives and the PSC’s Public Interest Advocacy Staff cite provisions contained in an agreement between the two parties they say protects customers.

“The company agrees that if the application is granted, Georgia Power will not seek recovery of any project construction costs that exceed the proposed project construction cost in the company’s January 31, 2024, application for certification absent a showing that such costs are the result of circumstances beyond the company’s control,” Georgia Power asserted in the agreement.

But Sherrier said the agreement covers only construction costs, not the costs of the fuel the new turbines will burn. The commission approved a fuel costs recovery plan submitted by Georgia Power last year that raised the average residential customer’s bill by $15.90 per month.

“Fuel costs go straight to customers,” Sherrier said.

The agreement also sets out a process for monitoring the construction of the three turbines, with Georgia Power submitting progress reports to the PSC every six months. The same process was used during the construction of two additional nuclear reactors at Georgia Power’s Plant Vogtle, a project that was completed in April.

Jacob said he’s skeptical of the value of construction monitoring, considering that the Vogtle reactors went into commercial operation seven years behind schedule after encountering cost overruns that more than doubled the price tag.

But Sherrier sounded a hopeful note looking ahead to the role construction monitoring could play in the Plant Yates project.

“Hopefully, there won’t be cost overruns,” he said. “But if there are, we’ll be able to see them coming and address it.”

Lawsuit charges State Election Board with meeting illegally

ATLANTA – A nonprofit nonpartisan watchdog group filed a lawsuit Friday charging the State Election Board with violating Georgia’s Open Meetings Act after meeting last week without legally required public notice or a quorum.

The three Republicans on the five-member board gave preliminary approval during a special meeting last Friday to rules changes that would require local election officials to post daily updates on their websites and inside polling places during early voting and give poll watchers greater access on election nights while votes are being processed.

Action on the two rules had been postponed from three days earlier when the board’s regularly scheduled meeting ran long.

According to the lawsuit, filed in Fulton County Superior Court by the group American Oversight, notice of the special meeting wasn’t posted until late the day before the meeting took place. Even then, the notice was posted outside the meeting room rather than on the board’s website, where meeting notices are usually posted.

Neither board Chairman John Fervier nor Sara Tindall Ghazal, the board’s lone Democrat, were available to attend the meeting, and one of the three Republican board members attended virtually, in violation of the Open Meetings Act, the suit charges.

“Three members of the State Election Board rammed through a last-minute meeting to consider controversial rule changes without notifying the public,” said Chioma Chukwu, American Oversight’s executive director.

“Georgia’s Open Meetings Act and others like it are vital to a functioning democracy by helping ensure official actions are conducted in full view of the public. Attempts to maneuver around it to advance changes to Georgia’s election rules are a clear violation of this law.”

The lawsuit seeks to have the rules changes voted on during the meeting declared null and void and the meeting itself declared invalid.

The board is expected to conduct a final vote Aug. 6 on the two rules changes as well as a proposal board members tentatively approved during the earlier regularly scheduled meeting that would make it easier for local elections officials to challenge the certification of election results.

Kemp headed to Italy on trade mission

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp will lead a weeklong trade mission to Italy to strengthen existing economic ties with Italian businesses and develop new partnerships, the governor’s office announced Friday.

Kemp, Georgia First Lady Marty Kemp, and representatives of the state Department of Economic Development will meet next week with executives from companies currently doing business in Georgia, including firearms manufacturer Beretta, tiremaker Pirelli, TMC Transformers, and textiles manufacturer Aquafil.

“For decades, Georgia has enjoyed close economic and cultural ties to Italy,” Kemp said. “Marty and I look forward to building on that foundation of success during this trip.”

Italy is a top-15 trading partner with Georgia, with $3.4 billion in total trade moving between the Peach State and Italy last year.

Italy also was among the top-10 international investors in Georgia in 2023, and Italian companies have invested more than $411 million since 2010 in projects with state involvement. About 90 Italian-owned facilities in Georgia support about 5,000 jobs.

Kemp led a trade mission to South Korea just last month. The last Georgia trade mission to Italy took place in 2017 and was led by then-Gov. Nathan Deal.

State rolls out $1.5B transportation projects list

ATLANTA – Gov. Brian Kemp Thursday announced how the state plans to spend $1.5 billion in surplus funds the General Assembly earmarked earlier this year for transportation infrastructure improvements.

The one-time infusion of transportation dollars will raise spending on the Georgia Department of Transportation’s capital construction program by 58%, more than double state aid to local governments for transportation improvements, boost funding for repaving projects by 32%, pay for improvement projects at various general aviation airports, and fund a new program aimed at improving the movement of freight across Georgia.

“What I like above all is it’s going to keep people working in all parts of our state … with money to spend to support their families,” Kemp told Capitol Beat in an exclusive interview.

Jannine Miller, the DOT’s director of planning, said 80% of the $1.5 billion will go toward adding roadway capacity.

“We are a growing state, both people and freight movement,” Miller told members of the State Transportation Board Thursday. “That capacity is going to make a big difference.”

The biggest chunk of the funding – $593 million – will help the DOT keep pace not only with the additional demand on highway capacity resulting from Georgia’s population growth but with inflated road construction costs. The money will be used to accelerate the construction of 24 road projects by a total of 43 years.

“It gives us a big shot in the arm to make sure no projects are getting put on the back burner,” Kemp said.

Highway projects to be funded through the infrastructure package include completing an overhaul of the Interstate 16/I-75 interchange in Bibb County – work that has been dragging on for years – expanding the toll lanes along I-75 south of Atlanta to allow the lanes to open both northbound and southbound at the same time, and extending Georgia 400 at its northern end in Lumpkin County.

The $500 million freight program includes 18 projects, highlighted by widening Interstate 16 in Chatham and Effingham counties to improve the movement of cargo in and out of the Port of Savannah, improvements to Georgia 365 in Hall County to aid the flow of cargo out of the Georgia Ports Authority’s planned inland port in Gainesville, and improvements to Georgia 5 and Georgia 515 in Pickens County.

Cities and counties will get $250 million for local transportation improvements. Airport aid will be increased by $98 million, highlighted by construction of a new Griffin/Spalding Regional Airport. Resurfacing of state highways across Georgia will be funded through a $50 million increase in the DOT’s capital maintenance budget.

Georgia Democrats challenging leadership committees law

ATLANTA – The Democratic Party of Georgia filed a federal lawsuit Thursday challenging a state law that authorized the formation of “leadership committees” that can raise and spend unlimited contributions on behalf of statewide and legislative candidates.

Senate Bill 221, which the Republican-controlled General Assembly passed in 2021 virtually along party lines, created eight leadership committees to be chaired by Georgia’s governor, lieutenant governor, the general-election nominees opposing those two statewide incumbents and the heads of the majority and minority caucuses of the state House of Representatives and Senate.

While leadership committees can accept unlimited donations, traditional campaign committees working on behalf of individual rank-and-file candidates are subject to limits, typically maxing out at $26,400 per election cycle.

In 2022, incumbent GOP Gov. Brian Kemp and Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams used their respective leadership committees to raise $94.6 million between them.

But this year, with no gubernatorial election on the ballot, Abrams’ leadership committee is essentially defunct, while Kemp’s Georgia First leadership committee is free to transfer unlimited contributions to Republican legislative candidates.

The suit, which seeks to invalidate the law, claims such unequal treatment is unconstitutional.

“If you have one side allowed to collect unlimited amounts of money while the other side is handcuffed, that violates freedom of speech,” said former state Sen. Jen Jordan, D-Atlanta, who led the opposition to the legislature in the Senate in 2021 and is representing the Democratic Party in the lawsuit. “The playing field needs to be even … and let the chips fall where they may.”

Kevin Olasanoye, the Democratic Party of Georgia’s executive director, said Kemp used funds raised by Georgia First to help bankroll May’s successful reelection campaign of Andrew Pinson, appointed to the high court by Kemp in 2022. Pinson defeated former U.S. Rep. John Barrow, a Democrat, in a rare contested state Supreme Court contest.

The governor’s leadership committee also is raising money to help incumbent Republican legislators seeking reelection this year in districts where Democrats have been making inroads and aiding GOP challengers in districts represented by Democrats, Olasanoye said.

“If you can raise unlimited contributions through a leadership committee … why do we have campaign-finance limits for individual candidates?” he said. “It doesn’t make sense.”

Environmental group petitions EPA to revoke ash pond closure permit at Plant Hammond

ATLANTA – The Atlanta-based Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to revoke a permit the state issued last year for a coal ash pond closure project at Plant Hammond.

According to the SELC, the permit issued last fall by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) allows toxic coal ash to remain in contact with groundwater at the Georgia Power plant near Rome in violation of a federal rule adopted in 2015.

In a ruling last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia upheld the Biden administration’s crackdown on coal ash disposal plans that leave the ash in groundwater.

Coal ash contains contaminants including mercury, cadmium and arsenic that can pollute groundwater and drinking water as well as air.

The closure of Ash Pond 3 at Plant Hammond is a component of Georgia Power’s plan to close all 29 of its coal ash ponds. At 19 of the ponds, ash is to be excavated and removed. The other 10 are to be closed in place.

Meanwhile, closures of much larger, more deeply submerged ash ponds are underway or completed at Plant Scherer in Juliette, Plant Yates near Newnan, and at Plant McDonough in Smyrna.

“Georgia EPD has made it clear that it will not follow the law and protect Georgia’s clean water and communities from toxic coal ash pollution,” said Frank Holleman, a senior attorney with the SELC. “EPA is charged with overseeing EPD’s program, and we need EPA to step in to protect Georgia’s rivers and neighborhoods because EPD will not.”

Jesse Demonbruen-Chapman, executive director of the Coosa River Basin Initiative, said a state of emergency was declared in 2022 due to flash flooding of the Coosa River.

“Hammond’s ash pond is sitting up to 10-feet deep in groundwater, waiting for the next severe weather event,” he said. “The Coosa River shouldn’t remain in harm’s way while EPD continues to ignore the reality that coal ash sitting in groundwater is a recipe for disaster.”

Georgia Power issued a statement last year asserting that it is using “proven engineering methods and technologies” in its ash pond closure plan at Plant Hammond.

The permit the EPD issued requires the utility to follow a post-closure plan for at least 30 years, conduct groundwater monitoring, and maintain a cover system that will mitigate the effects of erosion, the company wrote.